Confusing the Symbolic with the Real in Coping with Sexual Infidelity

October 21, 2013

April Westfall, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist & Senior Staff Therapist in the University City and Wynnewood Offices.

With our divorce rate for first-time marriages in the US continuing to hover around 50% – and even higher for those previously married couples – not surprisingly, many newlyweds look to the ceremony itself as if it were a symbolic touchstone that might improve their odds of survival. A decade ago a new trend in wedding planning emerged, whereby more and more couples – if limited to the financially well-off or to those willing to put themselves or their poor parents into debt to make it happen – began staging their weddings in far away, exotic locales. Notwithstanding the financial hardship and inconvenience posed to most of their invited guests – many of whom chose to send gifts along with their well wishes while declining to attend the ceremony – this trend of the so-called “destination” wedding has continued, although to a lesser degree, to this day.

Once up on a time the event of marriage meant an initiation into the world of adulthood and guilt-free sexuality, along with the numerous other benefits bestowed on the lucky couple of traditional marriage, regardless of the grandeur or meagerness of their ceremony. Young couples today mistake the ceremony for the other very real factors – including the stigma once associated with divorce and the financial burden of supporting two households when typically only the husband was gainfully employed – that kept couples from an earlier era wedded together in the face of the same range of discontents that comprise marriage, then and now.

Today, in what Pamela Haag (2012) in her thoughtful and very funny book, Marriage Confidential, has referred to as the post-traditional, post-romantic era of marriage, many of our ideas about what constitutes the “good marriage” are in flux. Some younger couples are actively engaged in rewriting the rules of marriage, as do the polyamorous and other “rebel” couples, who rely less on the age-old yardsticks to judge the integrity of their bond. Others look to reinstate some of the earlier constraints that operated before the nation-wide spread of no-fault divorce to bolster a couple’s chances of survival: hence, the recent popularity of “covenant marriage” to create a more legally and morally binding contract. But even among those less religiously observant and secular couples, the age-old verities continue to hold sway and are still viewed as important to what many couples aspire to become even now.

In working with couples coping with one partner’s sexual infidelity, I’ve noticed a similar confusion of the symbolic with the real. Research surveys – although naturally flawed in this area where there is both an exaggeration and minimization of involvement along gender lines – continue to support the commonness of sexual infidelity in marriage. Furthermore, the increasingly widespread use of social media sites has made it even easier for sexual transgressions to occur, however innocent the dialogue between online parties may at first appear. Among other things, these sites encourage a reconnection with persons from one’s past where there was once an earlier flirtation or something more serious or an anonymous liaison with someone, heretofore unknown, who sparks one’s curiosity and more.

No doubt, sexual infidelity has both a symbolic and a very real component in marriage. Most couples, including many in same-sex, committed relationships, continue to aspire to a sexually monogamous ideal. When they fail to live up to this ideal, however, there is inevitable disappointment and upset. But sexual fidelity – grounded as it is in our Judea-Christian religious tradition that commands us to not commit adultery, and in our romantic notions of finding our one, true love that will last a lifetime – can take on more symbolic importance. As such, it comes to be thought of as “the essential ingredient” of a successful marriage, sometimes to the exclusion of most everything else.

This confusion of the symbolic with the real can interfere with judgment and impair a couple’s ability to evaluate their marital life together with fairness and perspective. When sexual infidelity is in the picture, it is difficult for the injured spouse to give this betrayal its proper measure, as viewed within the context of the marriage as a whole. For example, many couples will tolerate a sexually depleted existence together for decades with little complaint or action to remedy the problem, as long as there are sufficient gratifications elsewhere or other compelling commitments to camouflage or compensate for this lack of passion. Should a partner’s affair be discovered, however, their tenuous sexual bond – mutually tolerated for years, if somewhat uncomfortably – now moves to center stage. And the partner’s affair – once out in the open – becomes the grounds for divorce, if not promptly ended. And even then, the betrayed partner may harbor a lingering sense of injustice that can erode all the sweetness that surrounded their relationship up until then.

The disclosure or discovery of an affair often precipitates a crisis in the couple’s marriage that produces emotional turmoil and intense fear surrounding the uncertainty about their future together. This emotional turmoil can cause a kind of tunnel vision in the injured spouse when thinking about their prior history together. What was once cherished as a source of real pride in their marriage is now viewed as counterfeit or otherwise discounted. In similar fashion, the personal qualities that attracted a wife to her husband to begin with or that she has discovered and learned to appreciate along the way are now regarded with skepticism. Or a wife previously seen as dependable and trustworthy is now deemed completely irresponsible – not even to be counted on to care for her children properly – despite the sometimes long history of evidence to the contrary.

Other hardships or disappointments in the marriage, however extreme, are reduced to minor incidents undeserving of attention, when compared to the infidel’s actions. For example, one wife’s alcoholism had remained untreated for years until a serious automobile accident, injuring her son who was a passenger in the car, prompted her to finally seek help. The fact that her husband’s affair with a colleague at work might have been brought on, at least in part, by her failure to seek help for her alcohol problem, was something she refused to even consider. No doubt the marriage and his wife would have been better served if he had chosen to deal more directly with her drinking problem, rather than through the pseudo escape-valve of the affair. Nevertheless, the fact that he resorted to an affair at that time – turning to his colleague for emotional support as much as for sex – had everything to do with his misguided attempt to cope with this very serious problem in his marriage – not to mention his sense of entrapment from having to remain there to oversee his wife’s care of his two young sons.

Nor is the injured spouse the only one to suffer from a distortion of perspective in the face of an affair. There are many a serial monogamist who justify their affairs on the grounds that they have now found their “true love” in the affair partner, only to become soon disillusioned with the reality of this person once they have left the marriage and have begun to see this person in a fuller, less flattering light. There is little doubt that the romance of falling-in-love can be intoxicating. It is the stuff of tawdry tabloids as well as great literature and forever shall be. And to feel sexually alive again after tolerating a humdrum, if mechanically functional, sexual routine for years on end is compelling stuff. But to confuse the imaginative sense of all-things-possible with the beloved that accompanies romantic love in its early stages with reality as it is more likely to be played out in the future is to be headed for a painful reckoning.

This is not to say that some people will sometimes discover in their affair partner someone who offers them a different and better – at least from the vantage point of where they are in their life at that time – mate. I have certainly witnessed these seemingly felicitous second-time-around and even third-time-around unions among both my friends and my clients. But these couples also have the courage to face up to the typically damaging effects of their affair on their unsuspecting and injured intimates, most especially their former spouses and children. That is, they are able to deal with the reality of the affair, and are able to be accountable to those who stand to benefit far less, if at all, from the break-up of the old marriage.

Even when the affair creates less upset for the couple – especially, if of shorter duration and an isolated event in a long-term, mutually satisfying marriage – people often voice doubt about their more limited response to the situation. Should they feel more upset than they feel? Are they being a “patsy” by their willingness to move on and forgive the partner so easily? And would their friends and family disapprove of their way of handling the infidelity? And does the fact that what is meaningful in their marriage has less to do with sex than with a shared commitment to raise healthy children or with a deep friendship and enjoyment of the life they have created together serve to invalidate their marital bond in some way? Is theirs a “real” marriage? Should they simply end it and begin anew with someone else? Even today, among those couples who want to live out their life together with more freedom and imagination, the older ideals and strictures continue to constrain their thinking and emotional reactions to the affair. Such is the power of symbols!

So what is left that is real to guide our thinking through the still difficult course of getting past a partner’s affair? Over the years, my clients have taught me to appreciate the following important truths while struggling to remain hopeful about their chances of doing so:

  • Affairs can happen in the strongest of marriages, as well as in those that are fatally flawed, so don’t misread its occurrence as a sign of the essential wrongness of yours. Affairs happen for a host of different reasons, many having nothing to do with the quality of the marriage or the person’s commitment to the spouse.
  • Decisions to remain in or to end a marriage during the immediate discovery period tend to be so emotionally driven by high negative intensity as to be unsound. Couples that make hasty decisions at this time, often from a misguided desire to escape the turmoil, are apt to suffer regret later. Better to wait until emotional composure has been regained to a reasonable degree and there has been a more careful consideration of the causative factors for the affair and its deeper meaning for you as a couple before taking definitive action.
  • When there is an affair, there are lies, and there is no way around this. Many partners experience a partner’s lying to them as the worst part of the infidelity. Although privacy is something that should be respected in marriage, the web of secrecy and concealment surrounding an affair, especially an affair that continues for a longer duration, strikes a blow at the heart of what is essential for most couples: that their partner will treat them in an honest and trustworthy manner.
  • Most people who have affairs are basically decent, forthright people that do not make a habit of lying to their spouse in other important areas of their life. Although they may bemoan the hurt to the spouse brought on by the revelation of the affair, they also feel relief when finally freed from the “habit” of lying and deception that had infiltrated their marital lives.
  • The compartmentalization that is required for an affair to continue for longer periods, whereby the spouse lives simultaneously in two separate realities, is quite confusing and troubling to the other spouse. Unless the other spouse has experienced something similar, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to understand how anyone could carry on in this way. Previously happy memories are now marred with the knowledge that there had been contact with the affair partner soon after the remembered event. Sadly, the unsuspecting spouse may doubt the reality of any of their happier, loving moments together for a time. She may also berate herself for failing to take seriously her prior suspicions or for her too easy willingness to accept her husband’s explanation for his continued lateness.
  • The fact is that spouses typically operate with a “truth bias” in their marriage and usually give their partners the benefit of the doubt in most instances. To do otherwise would betray their own hopes for a trustworthy mate. Even those cynical types, who are inclined to question the motives of most people who come into contact with them, often give a pass to their spouses, at least until proven guilty. Only those who suffer from prior intimate betrayal are apt to turn a suspicious and judgmental eye on their unfortunate spouses from the outset.
  • Ending an affair is often a messy business and does not usually happen all at once. Although many self-help books would have couples believe otherwise, it is not uncommon for the involved spouse to reconnect with the affair partner at some point before breaking off all contact. This can happen at any time, even months after the parties have ceased meeting regularly. This is especially true in longer affairs, where the emotional attachment between them is greater. One should not despair at such moments, or question the sincerity of the involved spouse’s very real desire to end the affair. Still, reassurance as to the spouse’s continued commitment to ending the relationship with the affair partner is certainly called for here.
  • Jealousy is that “green-eyed monster” that is hard to harness in the face of sexual betrayal. When the correspondence with the affair partner is conducted with emails and text messages, as so often occurs now, the repetitive rereading of your partner’s yearnings for the lover is sure to torment. So try to resist the obsessive need to preserve and revisit these messages in an attempt to get at “the truth” of what happened.
  • Jealousy is most intense when confronted with the explicit details of the partner’s sexual tryst. Once disclosed – either through the spouse’s careless handling of erotic messages and pictures of the lover or in response to the betrayed spouse’s insistence on sexually explicit details – there is no going back. Therefore, try to refrain from either asking for or offering such detailed information when pressured to do so. This level of detail will not go down easily or be helpful to you or your partner in the long run. Sexual passion requires surrender of control, including where your mind might happen to wander during moments of heightened intensity. Once the details of your partner’s sexual behavior with the lover are made known, it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to steer your imagination away from these powerful images during lovemaking.
  • Again, be judicious in what questions you ask your partner about the affair. Ask yourself how these questions might help us to heal and move forward in our lives. Questions posed soon after disclosure or discovery often have the flavor of asking your partner to confirm or disconfirm your worst fears. Moreover, few people have the emotional stamina to carefully consider the spouse’s answers at that moment anyway. Keep in mind that there will be time later – once emotional equilibrium is restored – to more constructively address your lingering questions.
  • Exercise caution when choosing to confide in family and friends at this time. It is natural to seek comfort from a dear friend or family member when we feel desperate, looking for validation and emotional support. But it is also difficult to maintain control over how we speak and what is disclosed and how much when so upset. Many report later feeling embarrassed in the company of these confidants, suffering from the overexposure of too much intimate information, or even worse, becoming the brunt of unflattering gossip. It is also difficult for a loyal friend or family member to not side against the person who has hurt you so. Although this may seem like what you might want and need right then, you may later regret it, if it results in a permanent rift in the relationship between this person and your spouse. So choose carefully and wisely. A wise choice is someone who can respect your wish to talk or not talk about the infidelity when together – and someone who cares, but can remain calm and less reactive when you are so upset. Most important, a wise choice is someone who can honor your process and eventual decision to remain with or leave your partner.
  • Healing occurs through our active participation in the healing process, and this is true for those persons who feel betrayed by their spouses’ infidelities. Without doubt, intimate betrayal strikes at the heart of one’s capacity to trust and to love. The pain is real and must be taken seriously. Yet, if you are to move beyond the victim identity that causes you to want to strike back or retreat from more intimate contact, you must work to do so. Along these lines, you need to begin to behave in ways that enhance your personal safety and well-being, causing you to feel less helpless and at the mercy of your partner. At other times, it includes the decision to open your heart to your partner’s attempts to make it up to you in some way or to your partner’s sincere apologies for causing you such deep hurt. This openness, although necessarily tentative at first, is essential, if forgiveness of the betrayal is to happen.
  • Healing happens slowly – in fits and starts – and through a gradual return of more positive feeling between spouses. At first, especially during the immediate crisis period, this positive sharing is typically brief and often disrupted by fear and other negative emotion. Couples commonly experience certain “islands of normalcy,” such as when caring for their children, while other important areas of their intimate life remain strictly off-limits. With time and continued healing, these areas of positive feeling become larger and more robust. As the husband of a couple nearing the end of treatment remarked, “What a pleasure to be planning our Christmas party as usual this year, without having to think about whether we want to do so.”
  • Couples return to sex after an affair in their own time, and a few never do. For some – especially those that have enjoyed a satisfying sexual life before the affair – there is an eagerness to reclaim this territory as their own. Some couples, although embarrassed to admit it, even become more interested in their spouses as a sexual being once the affair is revealed. Others hope to rekindle sexual desire that was somehow lost to them years ago through a resigned, though uneasy, pattern of benign neglect by both. Most challenging, couples may struggle to find an acceptable accommodation to one spouse’s variant sexual arousal pattern, when repugnant to the other spouse. And some must cope with disclosures that threaten to undermine the very foundation of the marriage, as when a wife reveals her involvement with a same-sex partner (or with a partner of the opposite sex in a same-sex, committed relationship).
  • If the couple hopes to continue to partake of sexual intimacy, it is important that their enjoyment of physical and sexual intimacy keep pace with the return of other positive feelings. Couples not yet ready to resume sex more completely may accelerate the pace by continuing to share physical touch and affection (e.g., holding hands while walking together, cuddling in bed, saying good-bye with a hug and a kiss, etc.). It is also important to be sensitive to the betrayed spouse’s fear of contagion through sexual contact – a fairly common and quite valid concern – and to show a willingness to comply with whatever measures are required for the moment to ensure physical safety (e.g., use of condoms, agreeing to testing for STDs) before resuming sexual intercourse.
  • It is not uncommon for the injured partners to harbor doubt as to whether they will be able to fully trust their partners ever again after an affair. Many couples who have gone through this crisis report the loss of a kind of naïve innocence and blind faith in their partners that once allowed them to imagine themselves one of the lucky ones, who might be spared all the damaging fallout of an affair. With time, most spouses are able to regain emotional composure and eventually lose the infuriating need to scan their partners’ every action for signs of further betrayal. And in time, many regain a less fragile feeling of trust in their partners. Of course, this can only happen once the affair has really ended and there is no new incriminating evidence to be found. This process is also helped by the involved spouse’s assuming a more protective watch over the marriage, in a way that frees the injured spouse from having to do so. Throughout this often uncomfortably long process, the involved partner’s repeated reassurance that he will be there over the long haul is undeniably critical to the outcome.
  • Forgiveness happens gradually over time and, if genuine, is not to be rushed. I concur with Janis Spring (2004), in believing that forgiveness happens most successfully when both partners are fully engaged in the process. Apologies offered soon after disclosure or discovery of an affair are often defensive and likely to fall on deaf ears. On one hand, the injured partner must feel safe enough to reengage with life once again, and to let go of the obsessive focus on the betrayal and the desire for revenge. He also must be open to his partner’s attempts to make it up to him in some way, though impossible to do in a perfect way. On the other hand, the offending partner must be willing to bear witness to her partner’s pain and be fully accountable for her actions, however unintended the consequences. She also must be willing to work to earn her partner’s forgiveness, and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to do so. Apologies, when heartfelt and freely given, count for a lot. They also almost always benefit from repetition, even when spoken with a sincere voice and rendered in most elegant terms the first time around.
  • Clearly, some couples will not be able to recover sufficiently from the damaging effects of the betrayal. Perhaps the affair lasted far too long – and with too many attendant lies – for the injured spouse to ever fully let go of her distrust. Or there were too many episodes of sexual infidelity – interspersed with periods of remorse and vows by the guilty partner to clean up his act – only to be discovered once again “with his pants down” as they say. At other times, the affair may have been quite brief, ending shortly after begun, but the chosen lover happened to be a close friend of the spouse – or even a sibling – so that the damage caused by this poor choice seems irreparable. Or the betrayed spouse suffered far too much from a parent’s earlier infidelities and the resulting breakup of the childhood family to grant forgiveness to his errant spouse now. Even while continuing in the marriage, the betrayed spouse may become stuck in a pattern of what the late Shirley Glass (2000) once referred to as “accusatory suffering.” Fearing that doing too well would invalidate her pain or put her at risk for further betrayal, she remains trapped in this unending, hapless state.
  • Other couples will fail to reach agreement about the desirability of sexual exclusivity in marriage. After numerous attempts to find common ground on this critical issue, but with clearer awareness that they are unable to do so, they may eventually decide to end the marriage. Others may discover that they are seeking very different things from the marriage – neither able to get what they need or give to their partners what they might want from it – and come to a similar conclusion. Far from being a waste of time and effort, their honest and sincere attempts to wrestle with their differences in order to save the marriage will hopefully leave them in a less embittered state when they make the final decision to divorce. Moreover, their children and other family members are likely to benefit by their hard work, in a way that frees them from having to take sides between warring parties into the future.
  • Finally, couples who deal with infidelity must come to terms with the imperfectness of their union. For many, there are lasting scars, lingering resentments, and only partial forgiveness. For a lucky few, they report a deepening intimacy between them as they struggle to make peace with the betrayal and one grounded in a finer understanding of each of their separate needs and vulnerabilities. As with any relationship so tested – whether through sudden and unexpected illness, alcohol or drug addiction, or intimate betrayal – theirs becomes a loving partnership grounded in the reality of both human frailty and resilience. Although few would choose to be tested in this way – given the inevitable hurt and remorse that comes with it – their renewed commitment to each other and stark determination to see it through somehow strengthens their bond in the end.

April Westfall, PhD is a Licensed Psychologist & Senior Staff Therapist in the University City and Wynnewood Offices. Request an appointment today.